Links for April 10th

Links from my del.icio.us account for April 10th:

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al-Hiwar channel first victim of satellite charter?

Below is a letter sent by the Committee to Protect Journalists to the chairman of Nilesat regarding the ban of al-Hiwar, a London-based satellite channel, which is apparently the first victim of the new Arab Information Ministers' Charter on Satellite TV:
April 8, 2008 Mr. Amin Bassiouni Chairman Nilesat P.O. Box 72 6th of October City, Egypt Via Facsimile: +202 384 00 402 Dear Mr. Bassiouni: The Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to express its deep concern about your company’s decision to stop carrying the signal of the London-based Al-Hewar Television. Nilesat, an Egyptian government-owned satellite transmission company, stopped carrying the channel on April 1 without warning or explanation, according to international news reports and Egypt-based journalists. The station remains accessible to viewers on the Atlantic Bird satellite system, according to news reports. The public silence of your company, coupled with the recently promulgated Arab Information Ministers’ charter on satellite broadcasting, has prompted speculation that the decision comes in retaliation for the station’s critical reporting on Egyptian and Arab world politics. The Arab Information Ministers’ charter, adopted in February, calls for vague bans on broadcasting that has a “negative influence on social peace and national unity,� that is “in contradiction with the principles of Arab solidarity� or that defames Arab “leaders or national and religious symbols.�
Zaher Birawi, Al-Hewar TV’s program director, called Nilesat’s move “surprising� and “unjustified.� Al-Hewar TV said in a statement that it might be linked to “the dissatisfaction of the Egyptian government with the high level of freedom with which the channel tackles different issues, particularly those related to the situation in Egypt.� Al-Hewar features talk shows such as “Peoples’ Rights,� which often invites human rights activists harassed or persecuted by Arab governments, and “Egyptian Papers,� which has hosted prominent Egyptian government critics such as editor Ibrahim Eissa and dissident judge Hisham Bastawissi. Last week, the Egyptian daily Al-Dustour quoted Al-Hewar’s lead shareholder Azzam Tamimi as saying that the Nilesat decision could also be related to the channel’s coverage of popular support for Palestinians under siege in the Gaza Strip—stories that highlighted inaction on the part of Arab states and Egypt. The secretive closure of Al-Hewar TV bears the markings of censorship and poses a grave threat to the free flow of information. We call on you to publicly clarify the reasons for terminating Al-Hewar TV’s signal and see to it that the station is able to resume broadcasting immediately. Sincerely, Joel Simon Executive Director Cc: His Excellency President Hosni Mubarak His Excellency Anas al-Fiqi, Information Minister His Excellency Nabil Fahmy, Egyptian Ambassador to the U.S. The Honorable Francis J. Ricciardone, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt His Excellency Amr Mousa, Secretary-General, League of Arab States
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Links April 7th to April 9th

Links from my del.icio.us account for April 7th through April 9th:

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Leaked doc shows open-ended US stay in Iraq

No clear end to occupation:

A confidential draft agreement covering the future of US forces in Iraq, passed to the Guardian, shows that provision is being made for an open-ended military presence in the country. The draft strategic framework agreement between the US and Iraqi governments, dated March 7 and marked "secret" and "sensitive", is intended to replace the existing UN mandate and authorises the US to "conduct military operations in Iraq and to detain individuals when necessary for imperative reasons of security" without time limit. The authorisation is described as "temporary" and the agreement says the US "does not desire permanent bases or a permanent military presence in Iraq". But the absence of a time limit or restrictions on the US and other coalition forces - including the British - in the country means it is likely to be strongly opposed in Iraq and the US. Iraqi critics point out that the agreement contains no limits on numbers of US forces, the weapons they are able to deploy, their legal status or powers over Iraqi citizens, going far beyond long-term US security agreements with other countries. The agreement is intended to govern the status of the US military and other members of the multinational force.
[From Secret US plan for military future in Iraq | World news | The Guardian]
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Mahalla updates

Keep clicking on that refresh button at Hossam's for updates on Mahalla, where tensions are extremely high as we might head into a third day of riots. In the meantime, a repeat of the general strike is being called for May 4, the date of Hosni Mubarak's 80th birthday. I'm heading there this afternoon. In the meantime here is an account from activist Jano Charbel on yesterday's riots:
Intifada in Al Mahalla A popular uprising has been taking place in Al Mahalla Al Kobra since April 6. Local residents, in the tens of thousands, took to the streets of this Nile Delta city in protest against price hikes, and in protest against the detention of more than 300 locals. With stone-throwing youth and Central Security Forces engaged in running street battles Al Mahalla has come to resemble the occupied Palestinian territories; and the protests in this city have come to resemble an intifada. Over 100 civilians and members of the security forces have been injured in clashes, and at least one civilian (a 15 year old boy) has been killed.
Hundreds of CSF trucks have been deployed around the city and hundreds more within it. Upon approaching the outskirts of Al Mahalla on the night of April 7 one could clearly notice that the security forces were facing stiff resistance on the streets – because tens of these CSF trucks, which were stationed around the city, had their windshields smashed-in (despite the protective metal grids covering them.) Tear gas stings the eyes and irritates the respiratory system upon entering the city itself. In the neighbourhood of Sekket Tanta black clad riot police were firing tear gas canisters at just about anybody on the streets – including women, children, and the elderly; other troops opened fire on protestors using shotgun shells filled with rubber-coated pellets. Yet CSF troops could not disperse the youth protestors on the streets of this neighborhood. Male teenagers, along with (a significant number of unemployed) youths in their early twenties were at the forefront of these clashes with the CSF. Youth rained stones down upon the security forces and hurled Molotov cocktails at them. Clashes in this neighborhood had subsided only after 11pm. These youths chanted very expressive slogans against Hosni Mubarak, the government, and the interior ministry. Other protestors had destroyed photos and portraits of the Egyptian president that were found on the streets. Every single resident of Al Mahalla, with whom I spoke, confirmed that the non-violent demonstrations against price increases on April 6 had turned violent only after security forces moved to forcefully disperse demonstrators. Thus a peaceful demonstration quickly turned into a violent expression of popular discontent. Public properties and private enterprises have been the targets of attacks – a microbus was set ablaze, while three schools were torched, and two branches of the local ful & falafel franchise Al-Baghl were partially destroyed. It could've been local youth protestors who were behind these acts, or it could very well be the doing of destructive elements deployed by the interior ministry - in order to serve as a pretext for further crackdowns, and/or to tarnish the image of the protestors. One youth protestor said "I don't know who set fire to the three schools, or why they did so? But I think I understand the motives behind the burning of the microbus and the attack on the Al-Baghl Restaurants. The microbus was a state-owned vehicle, and thus a natural target for attack. As for Al-Baghl, I believe the restaurants were attacked due to popular discontent with rising food prices – only five years ago a ful or falafel sandwich at Al-Baghl cost 35 piasters, it now costs 65 piasters per sandwich." Another youth protestor on the street asked a member of the riot police "when's the last time you had a bite to eat? The officers aren't feeding you poor folks are they?" Looking exhausted and being unable to leave his spot, he quietly replied "we haven't had anything to eat in nearly 24 hours.
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The Battle of Tavregh Zeina « The Moor Next Door

From The Battle of Tavregh Zeina « The Moor Next Door:

More news from Mauritania. Word on the street is that two people have died and fifteen people have been hospitalized in a massive fire-fight in the chic Tavregh Zeina neighborhood of the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott today. The fighting is linked to the massive manhunt going on in search of the escaped Islamist accused of killing four French tourists late last year, Sidi Ould Sidna. There is speculation that Ould Sidna may have been killed in the fighting (Correction: Ould Sidna was among the wounded, operated on, and then taken into detention). It is unclear as to what the composition of wounded has been (in terms of soldiers, police, militants, or civilians). The government is describing the clash as one between the government and “Salafists,� a descriptor easily exchanged for “terrorists.�*

Mauritanian sources suspect that there is French involvement on the government’s side (French intell. has been in the capital for the past two weeks and the French were hopping mad to hear that Ould Sidna had escaped so quickly). According sources in Nouakchott, it is believed that four militants have escaped, and that police casualties are high because they attempted to arrest the militants, as opposed to killing them. Two wounded terrorists have been arrested. It is also being reported from the capital that the head of Mauritania’s elite anti-terror unit was killed in the fighting. Here is the Reuters report. The story remains ongoing.

 

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Links for April 7th

Links from my del.icio.us account for April 7th:

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Muslim Brothers to boycott municipal elections

The other fallout from yesterday's events, and the crackdown on the MB of the last two months:

Egypt Islamists to boycott election

CAIRO (AFP) - Egypt's main opposition movement the Muslim Brotherhood said on Monday it will boycott Tuesday's municipal elections after it was allowed to field only 20 candidates for thousands of seats.

"We call on the Egyptian people to boycott the municipal elections because of the executive's disregard for justice," the group's deputy supreme leader Mohammed Habib told AFP.

"We are boycotting" the election, he said. The Brotherhood was set to field just 20 candidates after a wide-ranging government crackdown left many would-be candidates behind bars or blocked from registering.

In contrast, President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party is fielding a candidate for every one of the 52,000 council seats up for grabs.

Ninety percent of its candidates are standing unopposed, according to party members.

Here's the Ikhwan's announcement.
Some will ask, why did they bother contesting the elections for the last two months, enduring countless arrests, if it was to pull out at the last minute? In conversations with MB leaders in the last two months, I was told that there was an internal debate as to whether participation was worth the cost. The consensus agreement was that they did not want to be seen as abandoning political work, and that the short-term price of arrests was worth it for the long-term gain of legitimacy they would get from having tried to participate and getting every trick in the book thrown at them by the NDP. Out of 52,000 seats up for grabs, the MB only wanted to contest some 10,000, managed to get nearly 6,000 candidates, only about 500 of which managed to get their papers in. Of these, only 20 made it on the final electoral list. I think they've proven that they tried their best, and boycotting the elections sends a clear message that the elections are a farce. Combined with the low participation of the legal opposition and dissent within the NDP, and the general political climate following yesterday's events, expect record low turnouts tomorrow.
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What to make of the "general strike"

As the khamseen winds blew into town today, a strange thing happened. A general strike that has been called for weeks went missing. People went out on the streets, asking, "have you seen the general strike?" "Are people striking over there?" "Do you know where the general strike went?"

It was all rather odd, because opposition and independent newspapers had been promising a "day of rage" and an "uprising," and the stodgy old state newspapers had ignored the subject altogether, preferring to concentrate on news that the price of rice and cooking oil had gone down and, er, that anyone striking or not showing up to work could face prison. The previous evening, a communiqué from the Ministry of Interior was aired on state television, telling people that they could get into a lot of trouble for participating in a general strike which wasn't going to take place anyway. The very, very pro-NDP Rose al-Youssef had also tried to reassure its readers: "Don't worry, there won't be a general strike, you can peacefully go to work."

On the opposition side, while most legal parties decided not to back the call for a general strike, there was the usual ambiguity from the Muslim Brothers, with one day General Guide Mahdi Akef calling for it and the next the group's Secretary General Mahmoud Ezzat (frequently thought to have more organizational weight) was saying that the MB were giving moral backing to the strike but would refrain from participating. Only Kifaya, Karama and a handful of the usual groups (radical leftists etc.) lent their full support for the idea of a general strike by going out on the streets. A much bigger group of people, mostly on Facebook, were calling for staying at home rather than going out on the streets to mark the general strike.

So, to recap, there were at least three strikes taking place yesterday: the Mahalla workers' strike and solidarity strikes by workers elsewhere, such as Kafr al-Dawar; the solidarity strikes and protests by the political movements in universities and major cities like Cairo by Kifaya and related movements; and an unknown number of solidarity stay-at-home "strikes" by individuals. These were of course all connected, but not necessarily all coordinated. I also wonder whether some of the workers striking for specific gains -- a new minimum wage, better benefits -- might have felt apprehensive about their cause being made into a symbol for the call for abstract gains -- democracy, reform, down-with-Mubarakism. The connection between the strikes carried out by the organized labor movement, which has specific bread-and-butter goals and whose political aims have for now focused on better representation in the local and national unions, and the broader political opposition is thus still hazy. There is certainly a great deal of public sympathy and admiration for the workers, a consciousness among the political class that they represent a movement that could be harnessed more effectively than Kifaya's disparate coalition, and the source of symbolic leadership for dissent that, unlike specific individuals like Ayman Nour or whoever else, can't be put in jail, be slandered or decapitated.

If we look at these three strikes separately, we can learn different lessons.

The workers' strike

There had been some uncertainty about the strike beforehand. Its main instigators, or at least the people who inspired it -- the brave workers of Mahalla al-Kubra -- apparently were divided about whether what was supposed to be their strike should take place. Although Hossam says this is because of the co-option of some labour leaders in Mahalla:


The factory itself has turned into a battleground of open propaganda warfare between the state-backed Factory Union Committee and the CTUWS faction on one side (and what a bloody irony when the CTUWS activists were the ones who had initially led the fight against the govt backed unions!), and the Textile Workers’ League activists who continue to agitate for the strike on the other. Statements and counterstatements are circulating the factory floor. A number of CTUWS activists were threatened with physical assaults by the workers when spotted distributing anti-strike statements from Hussein Megawer the head of the corrupt, state-backed General Federation of Trade Unions. The activists fled the scene, and left the statements hung on the wall, only to be torn down by the workers. Mohamed el-Attar, one of the CTUWS activists, phoned Ad-Dustour labor correspondent Mostafa Bassiouni. Attar was fuming, after Mostafa ran a report exposing the anti-strike pledge signed by Attar and four other labor leaders, and threatened Mostafa with a lawsuit. Meanwhile, the Textile Workers’ League called on the media outlets to boycott Attar and Co accusing the latter of losing credibility… Management officials in the different departments and production sectors are showering the factory floor around the day with calls against the strike, and the Gharbeia Province governor showed up in Mahalla and met with a group of the management as well as police informers in the factory to discuss how to sabotage the industrial action…

Since the CTUWS have been the leaders behind the Mahalla workers' movement -- the same ones who previously organized the largest strike in decades -- it seems to me that if labour leaders are in the middle of negotiations as they claim to be, they have a right to not go on strike. I would reserve judgement about the workers in favor of the negotiations, since they never asked to become national symbols of dissent and are after getting what they want from management. Besides, whatever the dispute between the CTUWS and the Textile Workers' League about whether or not to hold the strike, the atmosphere at the factory was very different than on previous occasions they held the strike.

It seems security forces took over the factory starting at 3am, were out in force in the city and made clear that they were ready to use violence. It seems that those who decided to join the spontaneous protests that began after the 3:30pm shift change ran into some serious resistance, including the use of cattle prods to electrocute strikers, tear gas, and other measures. Unlike previous strikes, probably because the security forces were so aggressive, this got quite violent as troops battled workers throwing stones and on occasion molotov cocktails. I hope that this does not set the new pattern for future strike actions, as it would probably mean the end of the powerful non-violent resistance shown by workers across Egypt over the last two years. Most seriously, at least two people appear to have been killed and hundreds were injured as live ammunition was used -- as it had been to control the last major strike movement in the mid-1990s. The consequences of this clash for the factory that had indisputably grabbed the leadership of the labor movement is still uncertain, and one hopes it does not put permanent shackles on labor activists there.


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Hossam has more details on what happened in Mahalla, and links to pictures.

The activists' strike

It was already pretty clear from the ministry of interior's warning on Saturday that a no-tolerance policy would be applied to activists involved in the general strike. By early Sunday over 95 activists, bloggers and politicians had already been arrested, and a stroll through Downtown Cairo showed that security was serious about coming out in force. Midan Tahrir's occupation by Central Security forces (and various sundry other units, including baltaguiya), with the backdrop of the khamseen's apocalyptic skies, certainly made a strange impression. As usual the activists were herded and pushed onto Abdel Khalek Tharwat Street, and from the terrace of the Lawyers' Syndicate over a thousand activists staged their demos. I see nothing very interesting here -- the show of solidarity was nice, but we haven't moved beyond the dynamics of the Kifaya protests of 2005. The presence of baltaguiya, especially, suggested that security forces were quite ready to resort to the tactics of using these hired street thugs, who are paid 20-30 pounds and a sandwich by police to beat up protesters, to avoid direct police-activist clashes. One wonders why they do that, except if only perhaps that the police and Central Security troops, which form the cordons that contain the demos, do not want to get their own hands dirty. Or perhaps security does not trust them to engage against ordinary citizens in this manner and prefers to have them remain on the sidelines.

The stay-at-home strike

This is the potentially most important part of yesterday's events, although it is difficult to interpret. Why was Cairo so empty yesterday?Was it because people decided to stay at home in a show of solidarity, or because people were afraid to go out and face potential riots and the security crackdown? Was it both, a form of safe civil disobedience for people who don't want to take the risk of open political participation? It's hard to know the answer, but the fact that many classrooms at schools and universities were nearly empty yesterday suggests that, one way or another, the call for a general strike had a real, widespread public resonance. Some, like Baheyya, see in this a budding campaign of civil disobedience of the kind many have advocated for several years. She had written in July 2007:

The notion of organising a national civil disobedience campaign has been percolating for some years now, pre-dating the current spectacular wave of protests. In fall 2004, it gained the valuable intellectual and moral imprimatur of retired judge and historian Tariq al-Bishri, who wrote a lucid defence of non-violent resistance as the only feasible and effective method of engaging the increasingly violent and personalised rule of Hosni Mubarak. Reading it again, I’m struck by how much has changed since al-Bishri penned his words. The fragmentation and dearth of collective action that he lamented three years ago are unrecognisable today, replaced by incessant societal movement, to wit: the electoral mobilisation of 2005, the pro-judges’ protests of 2006, the innovative campus organising of 2005 and 2006, the workers’ uprising of 2006-07, and the more recent spate of ordinary people’s street action.


By civil disobedience, al-Bishri meant precisely the kind of street-based collective demand-making and reclaiming of rights that is now sweeping the country, spearheaded by labour unions, craft guilds, professional associations, student unions, and ordinary people. Kifaya et al’s recent initiative goes well beyond this mode. It ventures into the most challenging, the most difficult terrain: seeking to activate societal sectors unused to expressing opposition of any kind, whether street protest or dissent in salons and political parties or writing letters to newspapers or joining a block association or any of the myriad other ways that politically aware citizens air their views.


The stay at home initiative targets those who cringe from making any sort of visible statement about public affairs but are by no means indifferent about current events. It seeks to tap into the intense and ambient sense of anger at the authorities that has settled over the entire country like a thick, low-hanging cloud, the subject of every household conversation and office chatter. It attempts to normalise dissent by weaving into the rhythm of everyday life, whittling it down to a simple, doable, and above-all risk-free act of staying at home (what we all love to do anyway) and hanging the flag from a window or balcony, an eminently respectable and patriotic gesture tweaked just enough to make a bold but non-threatening statement.

Is this what happened yesterday? I really don't know, but it's plausible that this kind of attitude is slowly developing. What's certainly encouraging is that the strike was supported by a myriad of different organizations. The MB's hesitant take on the strike -- understandable since putting thousands of their members on the street would have led to certain mass violence -- was nonetheless important, since it gave it the moral backing of Egypt's most important organized political force. Others too joined in who are not among the usual suspects, such as university professors fighting for greater independence and better salaries or the latest middle-class, professional movement to hit the scenes, Doctors Without Rights.

The workers' cause, the bread crisis, the outrage over last year's constitutional amendments, multiple corruption scandals, high prices, a bankrupt Egyptian foreign policy, the abandonment of even pretending to hold fair elections, routinized arrests of political dissidents -- all of these things have affected virtually all strata of Egyptian society, and the feeling of uncertainty over the future caused by the absent of a clear presidential succession process have all contributed to growing disenchantment with this regime. I think this has been pretty well established. For over two decades now, any political force that tried to rally citizens around this disenchantment has been met with repression and decapitation of leadership. We are left with a leaderless movement, one that some fear could turn into a mob, as it did during the 1977 bread riots, whose memory hung heavily over yesterday. Or, maybe, it just turned into a day of limited solidarity, an alpha version of what a real general strike might look like in the future. It remained a real condemnation of the current state of affairs. One socialist activist wrote in an email:

On April 6, 2008 Egypt did not in fact witness a general strike. Yet there is always potential for a general strike and there is clearly a great deal of discontent which may fuel such a general strike in the future. Since the massive strike at the Mahalla Textile Company in December 2006 Egypt's workers and labor unions have become increasingly vocal and active. An increasing number of workers have also been demanding the establishment of freely organized, independent, and representative labor organizations; an increasing number of workers have also been developing their contacts with other groups of workers and coordinating their efforts – these are the elements that are needed for a general strike.

Speaking of 1977, I was talking recently with a friend who was at university that year about his impressions of what was happening. He told me about one friend who had told him that he had been stopped by rioters who had set up a checkpoint. They politely asked him to step out of his car so they could burn it, as they had been doing all day. He pleaded: "but my car is a small, look at the one behind me, it's a Mercedes." So they let him go, and proceeded to torch the Mercedes. A prominent Marxist professor who had been very supportive of any anti-Sadat initiative then arrived, pale-faced: "the riff-raff have taken over the streets!" The lesson here is that even people who sympathize with workers or would like to see a massive uprising are afraid about the consequences of mass public . 1977 was bloody, and did not resolve anything beyond getting the price of bread to be reduced again -- a poor substitute for the better economic management, job creation and accountability so sorely needed in Egypt. Perhaps yesterday's invisible strikers are still looking for means for meaningful political expression without potential chaos, an option the regime has denied them for decades.

See also:

6 April blog - Dedicated to general strike

Underbelly of Egypt’s Neoliberal Agenda - Joel Beinin looks at another factory case, also covered here.

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Links April 5th to April 7th

Links from my del.icio.us account for April 5th through April 7th:

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CJR: Dave Marash: Why I Quit

Dave Marash, al-Jazeera English's Washington anchor until last week, gives an interesting interview to the Columbia Journalism Review about the reasons behind his departure. Chiefly it seems that he was unhappy with the US coverage of the station and his dwindling influence, but he also gives an intriguing explanation of recent editorial changes at both AJE and the mother station:

BC: What changed?

DM: I think that the world changed about nine, ten months ago. And I think the single event in that change was the visit to the gulf by Vice President Cheney, where he went to line up the allied ducks in a row behind the possibility of action against Iran. And instead of getting acquiescence, the United States got defiance, and instead ducks in a row the ducks basically went off on their own and the first sort of major breakthrough on that was the Mecca agreement, which defied the American foreign policy by letting Hamas into the tent of the governance of the Palestinian territories. This enraged the State Department and was one crystal clear sign that the Mideast region was now off campus, was off on its own. And it is around this time, and I think not coincidentally, that you see the state of Qatar and the royal family of Qatar starting to make up their feud with the Saudis, and you start to see on both Al Jazeera Arabic and English a very sort of first-personish, “my Haj� stories that were boosterish of the Haj and of Saudi Arabia. And you start to see stories of analysis in The New York Times where regional people are noting that Al Jazeera seems to be changing its editorial stance toward Saudi Arabia. I’m suggesting that around that time, a decision was made at the highest levels of [Al Jazeera] that simply following the American political leadership and the American political ideal of global, universalist values carried out in an absolutely pure, multipolar, First Amendment global conversation, was no longer the safest or smartest course, and that it was time, in fact, to get right with the region. And I think part of getting right with the region was slightly changing the editorial ambition of Al Jazeera English, and I think it has subsequently become a more narrowly focused, more univocal channel than was originally conceived.

I'm not sure what he's talking about when he mentions "following the American political leadership and the American political ideal of global, universalist values carried out in an absolutely pure, multipolar, First Amendment global conversation" -- after all American news media, or indeed policies, hardly follow "universalist values" or "multipolar conversation" of any kind -- but the Cheney bit is interesting.

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Fawzy - "Copts: Citizens not Clients"

I like Sameh Fawzy, a smart Coptic activist and researcher who has written at length about Islamist groups, the concept of citizenship, and many other issues. In his latest article for the Daily News Egypt he talks about Coptic attitudes towards the municipal elections, the problem with the clergy intervening on behalf of the regime and claiming to speak for all Copts, and the important question that elections are "more negotiations than competition." We've seen this in recent days as Zakariya Azmi, ruling party bigwig and President Mubarak's chief of staff, entered into talks with the legal opposition to urge it to field more candidates. We see it even at the local level where the Muslim Brothers can occasionally negotiate with local NDP, although those cases are now few and far between. What you have is an election where the results are essentially pre-determined, particularly when the party that refuses to enter negotiations most of the time, or with whom the regime refuses to negotiate, is excluded altogether.

Here obviously I speak of the Muslim Brothers, who still have a long, long way to go before most Copts come to trust them. Essam al-Erian has an op-ed in the Forward, which it seems is fast becoming the favorite Jewish-American magazine for Islamists. It's pretty boiler plate but covers much of the ground of what has been happening in recent days.

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Links April 2nd to April 4th

Links from my del.icio.us account for April 2nd through April 4th:

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Bin Laden and Palestine

The latest Times Literary Supplement has a review piece on several books about al-Qaeda, notably its ideology. Here's a passage worth highlighting from Jihadi studies:

"Although his discourse has evolved, there are some constants, one of which is Palestine. For some curious reason, there has emerged a perception – particularly in the US – that Bin Laden did not care about the Palestinian cause until after 9/11, when he found it politically opportune to mention it. This is incorrect. As Bergen has made clear, Bin Laden’s first public speeches in the late 1980s were about Palestine and the need to boycott American goods because of the US support for Israel. In Lawrence’s book, Palestine is mentioned in seven of the eight major pre-9/11 declarations, and thirteen of the sixteen post-9/11 texts. Palestine is the ultimate symbol of Muslim suffering and Bin Laden’s message would be weaker without it. The belief that Palestine is irrelevant for the war on terrorism is arguably the greatest delusion of the post-9/11 era."

Read the rest of the review -- that passage was about Bruce Lawrence's Bin Laden reader, Messages to the World. Also mentioned are Omar Nasiri's Inside Jihad and an essay by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Globalization and the Radical Loser.


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The settlements keep on expanding

In light of the recent news that Israel is yet again expanding West Bank settlements (by the way take a look at the wording of the headline and lead on that Post story), it's worth highlighting an excellent article on the issue in the London Review of Books.

LRB · Henry Siegman: Grab more hills, expand the territory:

"It is clear from Gorenberg’s account, and from Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar’s comprehensive survey of the settlement project, Lords of the Land, that the issue dividing Israeli governments has not been the presence of settlements in the West Bank. Shimon Peres of the Labour Party played a key role in launching the settlement enterprise. Their differences have been over what to do with the Palestinians whose lands were being confiscated. Most have argued they should be granted home rule and Jordanian citizenship. Over the years, some cabinet members – Rehavam Ze’evi, Rafael Eitan, Effi Eitam and Avigdor Lieberman, for example – have openly advocated ‘transfer’, a euphemism for ethnic cleansing. There has been general agreement that, rather than adopt a formal position on the future status of the West Bank’s residents and risk provoking international opposition, Israel should continue to create ‘facts on the ground’ while remaining discreet about their purpose. In time, it was thought, the world would come to accept the Jordan River as Israel’s eastern border.

These books give the lie to the carefully cultivated narrative that has sustained the occupation. According to that narrative, the government of Israel offered peace to the Palestinians and to its Arab neighbours in the aftermath of the war of 1967 if they would agree to recognise the Jewish state. But at a meeting of the Arab League in Khartoum on 1 September 1967, the Arab world responded with ‘the three ‘no’s of Khartoum’: no peace, no recognition and no negotiations. This left Israel no choice but to continue to occupy Palestinian lands. Had Palestinians not resorted to violence in resisting the occupation, the story goes, they would have had a state of their own a long time ago.

The story is a lie. Israel’s military and political leaders never had any intention of returning the West Bank and Gaza to their Arab residents. The cabinet’s offer to withdraw from Arab land was addressed specifically to Egypt and Syria, not to Jordan or the Palestinians in the territories. The cabinet’s formal resolution to return the Sinai and the Golan in June 1967 said nothing about the West Bank, and referred to Gaza as ‘fully within the territory of the state of Israel’. With only a murmur of dissent, the cabinet, led by Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan, and the then prime minister, Levi Eshkol, committed itself to policies that would allow only local forms of autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza, an arrangement they believed would in time enable them to establish the Jordan River not only as Israel’s internationally recognised security border but as its political border too.

The decision to retain control of the territories was taken days after the end of the 1967 war, and was not a response to Palestinian terrorism, or even to Palestinian rejection of Israel’s legitimacy. Zertal and Eldar cite a report by Mossad officials, prepared at the request of the IDF’s intelligence division and presented to the IDF on 14 June 1967, which found that ‘the vast majority of West Bank leaders, including the most extreme among them, are prepared at this time to reach a permanent peace agreement’ on the basis of ‘an independent existence of Palestine’ without an army. The report was marked top secret, and buried.

Security was the reason offered by Israel to justify the founding of the settlements. But the overwhelming majority of them actually created new security problems, if only because vast military and intelligence resources had to be diverted to their defence. The settlements have also enraged the Palestinians, whose land has been stolen to make room for them – this, too, has done nothing to increase Israel’s security."

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Jailed Tunisian comic freed

After the jump is a press release (in French) by Tunisian rights activist Sihem Bensedrine on the release of comic Hedi Ouled Baballah, who recently spent two months in prison for cannabis possession. It's widely believed by Tunisian NGOs that the real reason for his imprisonment (and the beatings he received at the hands of police) was a sketch he made at a private event in Tunis imitating President Zine Eddin Ben Ali. The sketch had been taped by mobile phone and widely circulated in Tunisia.

Don't forget Tunisia -- along with Syria and Jordan it is the worst police state in the region, but is completely ignored by much of the Western media because it is a "liberal" country (i.e. it persecutes Islamists and frowns on the veil). In fact it's one of the most perverse and most corrupt regimes around -- it makes Egypt look good in comparison -- and sooner or later this small and relatively developed country will pay the price for ignoring political reform. It's a real shame, because it some respects it is more like a southern European country in terms of education levels, etc.


l’Observatoire pour la défense des libertés de la presse, de l’édition et de la création
L’humoriste tunisien Ouled Baballah libéré

Tunis le 02 avril 2008

L’OLPEC se félicite de la libération de l’humoriste tunisien, Hédi Ouled baballah survenue le 20 mars dernier à l’occasion du 52ème anniversaire de l’indépendance. Ce dernier a bénéficié d’une libération conditionnelle après avoir passé plus de 2 mois en prison.

Hédi Ouled baballah avait été arrêté le 14 Janvier 2008 au péage de Mornag et conduit au poste de police de Ben Arous(banlieue de Tunis). Il a été inculpé de « détention d’une matière stupéfiante classée dans la catégorie B. » (cannabis) et condamné le 4 février par le tribunal de première instance de Ben Arous à un an de prison et une amende de mille dinars.
Devant le tribunal où il a comparu le 4 février 2008, il avait nié les faits et déclaré qu’il s’agit d’une machination policière liée à son dernier sketch. Cette hypothèse a été considérée comme la plus crédible aux yeux des ONG de défense de la liberté d’expression, tenant compte du fait que le célèbre humoriste venait de présenter un sketch audacieux dans un lieu privé où il imitait le président de la république tunisienne et que ce sketch a largement circulé en Tunisie par un enregistrement de téléphone portable.
Le comédien avait déjà été arrêté auparavant durant 3 jours et passé à tabac dans les locaux de la police en mars 2007 suite à la présentation d’un premier sketch, toujours dans un lieu privé, où il imitait également le président tunisien. Choqués par cette arrestation, des artistes et des personnalités du monde de la culture se sont mobilisés pour exiger sa libération à travers le monde.

L’OLPEC rappelle que le journaliste indépendant, Slim Boukhdhir est toujours en prison en train de purger une peine d’un an à laquelle il avait été condamné en décembre 2007 ; officiellement, il a été inculpé d'outrage à policier et de refus de présenter sa carte d’identité. Ce qu’on lui reproche en vérité ce sont ses écrits sur la corruption dans des journaux publiés à l’étranger. Actuellement, il est détenu dans des conditions inhumaines à la prison de Sfax et l’accès à son médecin lui est dénié;

L’Observatoire
- Félicite Hédi Ouled Baballah ainsi que sa famille pour sa libération.
- Il exige la libération sans condition du journaliste Slim Boukhdhir.
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Pour l’Observatoire
La secrétaire générale
Sihem Bensedrine
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Links March 31st to April 2nd

Links from my del.icio.us account for March 31st through April 2nd:

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There is no bread crisis!

For those who might be interested, I just did a story on the (continuing) bread crisis for the radio program The World. In my visits to Cairo bakeries last week, I was amused and a bit disconcerted to see to what extent the bread shortage has already become a "sensitive" issue--one that gets enfolded, as usual, with all sorts of paranoid nationalist discourse. At both bakeries I stopped at, men emerged immediately from the crowd to harangue me and tell everybody else, basically, to keep their mouth shut and not tell foreigners about the country's problems. One man held on at length (and high volume) about how the bread crisis was a Western conspiracy against Egypt and about how Egypt in fact had everything it needed, so much so that it hosted people from all over the Arab world. At the second bakery, a young man assured me "there is no bread crisis, and in fact there never was a bread crisis to begin with." The people around him pointed out that he was with the President's National Democratic Party and laughed while he insisted that "there is bread everywhere." In general, the people I spoke to showed a combination of anger, suspicion of me as a foreign journalist (not unusual) and embarrassment--I'd guess that people are a bit shocked to discover themselves a country where people kill each other for a few loaves of bread. It shows how desperate things have become. And it explains the denial.
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